Exploring Climate Change Effects on Water Availability and Agriculture

This page authored by Betsy A. Bancroft, Gonzaga University
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For this activity, students work in small groups to summarize how climate change is projected to affect one of nine world regions (as identified by the IPCC). The students explore the expected impacts of climate change on a specific region and then explore other relevant regional issues to identify how factors outside of climate change may affect each region. Students then narrow their focus to identify how these large-scale changes affect agriculture and water availability. Each group presents their findings to the class and turns in a written summary. Students use the most recent reports from the IPCC as a starting point, but you could provide more resources or papers, depending on the background of the students. The activity is designed to function as a jigsaw activity, where students contribute pieces of the big picture effects of climate change on the world.

Used this activity? Share your experiences and modifications

Learning Goals

Students will use resources to summarize effects of environmental change on world regions.
Students will synthesize information from scientific sources to propose how other environmental issues will interact with climate change.
Students will present complex scientific information in a format suitable for the layperson.

Context for Use

This activity was written for Environmental Studies majors and minors, where the ability to synthesize scientific information and package it for the layperson is paramount to many of their future career goals. The activity spans two 50-minute lecture-class periods for a class of 18-20, with time for each group of three students to (very) briefly present. Depending on the students' familiarity with climate change, agriculture, and water issues, the activity may be completed in just the two class periods, but for most students, completion will require time outside of the class. The students complete this activity after a lecture or two on the basics of climate change (drivers, broad effects, etc). In lieu of lecture, you could also have the students watch the videos by Neil DeGrasse Tyson and David Battisti linked in the resources section.

Description and Teaching Materials

Student handout for climate change, agriculture, and water activity (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 123kB Aug1 17)

See links to videos in the references and resources section.

Teaching Notes and Tips

Students need to distill a lot of information down into a few slides for their presentation, so guidelines for your own expectations would be helpful. I typically ask my students to give one slide of the big-picture effects, one slide with any specific information for their region (e.g., sea level rise will cause islands to become smaller in area), one slide for another environmental issue (e.g., habitat loss), and a final slide with the effects of climate change and the other environmental issue on agriculture or water availability.

For the student population I work with, I am emphasizing the skill of distilling a large amount of information down into the most important information. If you want the students to go into greater depth, you'll need more time for each presentation (probably about 20 minutes per group). Depending on the level of the student, you could provide a list of links to websites (e.g. USDA, NASA, etc), require the students to watch the videos from Neil DeGrasse Tyson and David Battisti linked in the reference section, and/or require each student to find and attach a peer-reviewed article related to the region and some aspect of climate change or environmental change. In reality, the IPCC reports contain enough information that the students could complete the assignment at a basic level with just the information in and references cited by the IPCC reports and the linked videos, below.

Again, expectations should be scaled to how much information the students have as they start the activity. Climate change is very complex, as we are all aware, so the more information the students bring to the activity, the more they will be able to do with the activity. The students I work with generally come in with some basic knowledge and are very interested in climate change and their presentations and written summaries are typically good. If I were to give this assignment in my non-majors biology course, I would probably break it into two pieces, the first of which would be the expected effects of climate change for their respective regions, followed by discussion of the effects as a class, and then another assignment where they would tackle how climate change alone might influence agriculture (i.e., leave out the other environmental threat), followed by a lecture/discussion about how climate change might interact with other factors to influence agriculture or water. For all students, a bit of class time (15-50 minutes, depending on your particular students) dedicated to discussing the effects of climate change on agriculture is necessary (summarizing, or getting the students to discuss the social justice implications of climate change, or other ideas that come up as the students work or present).

In general, my experience has been that students are often surprised by the effects of climate change on agriculture. If you have students who have been "raised" as climate skeptics, they have often heard that climate change will be beneficial for crops ("More CO2 is great for plants!") without the nuance of the interplay between temperature, water, and evapotranspiration. I also find that this activity is a good one for engaging with why it matters that we move beyond the "is it happening?" conversation--for students who don't care about the environment, negative effects on farmers are often compelling, as are negative effects on the economy.

To help students get the most out of this activity, you could expand the activity to three full class-days. On the first day, have the students spend one class period working with the IPCC report and identifying how climate change is expected to affect their region. In the next class period, you could begin by having each group report out (verbally or writing on the board) with the major (big picture) changes that are expected. The students will quickly notice how similar these big-picture changes are for each region (increased temperature, more variable precipitation). Then you could have the students list other environmental changes and threats on the board, then identify which of these threats/changes are likely to affect (or be affected by) agriculture and water availability. Each group will then have a place to start to investigate what other environmental factors they might explore for their region. Alternatively, you could assign the groups to explore how one environmental change might interact with climate change (e.g., habitat loss or disease). If you give the students the environmental factor, you probably want to have all groups use the same environmental factor so the jigsaw is cohesive.

As are all activities related to climate change, this activity can be depressing and/or alarming. While you don't want the students to give up because they feel hopeless, I think it is good for students to feel upset about climate change for a day or so. This activity could be followed by some small group brainstorming of how we as a global society might protect the vulnerable in the face of climate change or what steps are being taken by private foundations, businesses, and local governments to build resilience to climate change (see the resources from the University of Washington Climate Impacts Group, particularly "Preparing for Climate Change: A Guidebook for Local, Regional, and State Governments" linked below for some ideas of how governments might start preparing for climate change).


I assess this assignment in three ways:
Clarity of presentation and accuracy of information in oral presentation.
Clarity and accuracy of written summary.
For the students listening, I have them summarize the information learned in the student presentations in some meaningful way. For example, I might have students make connections on an exam between regions based on what regions have common concerns with respect to future impacts of climate change.

References and Resources

https://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar5/ Home page for the IPCC reports

http://www.climate-lab-book.ac.uk/files/2016/06/spiral_2017_large.gif Excellent visual of global temperature change from 1850-2017 (the spiral graph).

http://www.climate-lab-book.ac.uk/files/2016/06/co2_2017.gif Excellent visual of atmospheric CO2 concentration from 1958-2017 (related to the spiral graph, above).

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6VUPIX7yEOM Youtube video. Neil DeGrasse Tyson discusses climate change in a brief 4 minute video.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KPfJvZ9TfPQ Youtube video. David Battisti from University of Washington giving a lecture at the University of Edinburgh on climate change and global food security. It is long, but should be assigned as homework prior to beginning the activity described here, particularly if you haven't spent some time in lecture covering this topic. Dr. Battisti starts at ~7:33 minutes in and ends at ~59 minutes, with the remaining time dedicated to a question session.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eSjHN8zefak Youtube video. Keynote talk (30 minutes) by Michael Pollan about farming, food, and climate change. The focus of this video is more on how farming contributes to climate change, but he does a nice job explaining how the two (agriculture and climate change) are linked. This video would be useful if you would like to expand the activity into brainstorming solutions for climate change.

https://cig.uw.edu/resources/special-reports/ The Climate Impacts Group at University of Washington produces lots of information and data that could be used to narrow the focus of this activity to Washington or the Pacific Northwest.